Star Wars – The Dirty Hands Problem

kentharAs my light side character continued to move through his story line, he found himself on the capitol planet of Coruscant. This planet is a giant city; so everything you do on it takes place in one vast city (well, vast for this game; kinda small for a planet-city).

I found myself working for a the Senate to infiltrate some of the gangs that were running rampant on the planet. However, when I broke into their complex, I discovered that they had made a deal to help fund one of the very senators I was helping! Uh oh! Time to make a major ethics decision.

In this case, when I returned to the senator and confronted her with the information I found, she asked me not to disclose it, for the good of the government and the people. I moused over my dialog choices and found that the ‘Light’ choice was to force her to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences. Since I’m playing a Light character, that’s what I did, and she thanked me for showing her the li…err, the right way to be.

Here’s the problem, though. I hated this option. The senator had actually made a pretty compelling case here. She pointed out that her opponents had more money than she did; so she needed the gangs to help fund her campaign, so that she could get elected. Then, once elected, she would be able to be a force for positive change on the planet.

I get this! This is a version of what Michael Walzer, a political philosopher, calls the ‘Dirty Hands Problem’, a phrase he stole from Sartre. Walzer notes, I think rightly, that a good politician cannot help but dirty her hands a bit; it’s a messy vocation. If nobody is playing fair, then if you attempt to remain ethical and above the fray, so to speak, you will likely lose. What we want, Walzer argues, are people who are willing to do the dirty work that we do not want to do ourselves, but who are shameful enough to feel guilt at having to do so. In other words, we want someone who can’t sleep at night because she made a deal with the devil, but we still need her to make that deal, for the good of us all.

That’s basically what this senator was doing, and the game forced me (if I am to maintain my ‘light points’) to out her. That strikes me as pretty short-sighted. We might hope for a world in which politicians can tell us exactly how they feel, and what they will do. We might want a world of transparency where our politicians only do ethical things, and everything turns out right as a result. I’m not sure that’s the world we actually have though.

It’s an interesting dilemma, one that is especially fitting for me to consider the day after I voted in the Ohio primary. Do we need politicians with dirty hands? Or is it possible to clean up the system itself so that dirty hands are no longer necessary?

Star Wars (TOR)- Blinded by the Light (Part One)

kentharI recently signed back up to play Star Wars: The Old Republic. This Bioware MMORPG allows you to play as either part of the Republic or part of the Sith Empire, which basically means you are either a good person or a bad person. That’s a bit of an oversimplification. On the Republic side, you are basically supporting the good side of the conflict. However, your character can make choices that make him or her travel further down the path of the Light Side or the Dark Side.

SWTOR is much more story-oriented than most MMOs. Each class has its own story that it progresses through, including missions unique to that class. This gives Bioware a chance to make you feel like the hero, which is something most MMOs lack. The choices you make, between good and evil, as you progress through the story don’t actually make much of a difference to the story itself. However, they do change your character’s appearance and give you access to different equipment.

I have a love/hate relationship with Bioware’s approach to ethics. On the one hand, I love that they try to include it in games. The Baldur’s Gate series, for example, allows you to play any alignment, and your party makeup and choices will differ as a result of your choice to be good or evil. The problematic part is the choices themselves. In that series, the ‘evil’ acts tend to reduce to being mean and stealing a lot. There’s little room for the subtleties of playing a Lawful Evil character, bent on taking over the world. Basically, if you kill good people (or NPCs), or you get caught stealing things, you are evil. If you help people, you are good.

SWTOR takes a similar approach, but uses the Light and Dark sides of the force to represent good versus evil. Once again, I admire that they allow for this, and that it is not limited to what side you take in the galactic struggle. You can play on the Republic side, as a Jedi, and fall victim to the Dark side of the force, for example.

The problem, once again, is what is considered “Dark”.

One of my characters is a Jedi Knight. I’m playing him as a follower of the Light side, so I try to be helpful and make choices that will give me “Light Points” instead of “Dark Points”. These are helpfully labeled in the dialog choices, so you won’t make a mistake somehow. That’s a good thing, since I can’t always tell what will lead receiving points in either direction.

For example, my character was asked to help a village of Twi’leks, which he happens to be a member of anyway, though they didn’t comment on that. The village was being attacked by Flesh Raiders (that can’t be good! I hope they didn’t name themselves!). At several points, I was given the option of being exceptionally rude to the villagers. I could tell them I don’t care. I could ask for money. I could even be sarcastic at times. What was odd is that these choices may or may not lead to Dark Side points. Sometimes they would, and sometimes they would not. Also, choices that seemed pretty rude, but not outright evil, might lead to the same number of Dark Side points as choices that amount to murder. I get that game mechanics dictate some of this, but it seems odd to equate sarcasm, or even indifference to the plight of others, with killing someone in cold blood.

At other times, I would try to do the right thing, get the Light points, and then end up doing the same thing I would have on the Dark path, essentially. A good example of this came when I told one of the leaders that I would not murder the raiders for her. She said she understood but that they would likely attack me on sight, and I would have to defend myself (by killing them, of course!). That’s a good way to get my noble Jedi Knight to kill a bunch of mobs, I guess!

Another interesting choice happened when one of the village guards asked me to use some of the raider technology to get revenge on them for what they had done to villagers. Arguable, this could be seen as justice, a kind of retribution that makes sense in the case at hand. However, he constantly stressed that it would revenge, not justice, so that I would know this was the evil path. Ok, I guess I’ll have to tell him that revenge is wrong! I’m going to go out and get that tech and just destroy it rather than use it on the raiders…oh, and I might have to murd….err, self-defense them all in order to do so! But that’s Ok. Jedi Business–nothing to see here!

The Millionth Rant about D&D Alignment


I won’t be the first, nor last to say this, but the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system is horribly broken. In an attempt to capture the fact that people have different motives and various virtues and vices, the makers of D&D (most likely Gygax himself) introduced the notion of alignment, which was intended to reflect your character’s basic values and moral inclinations. There were nine options: a combination of choosing whether your character was Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic, and then Good, Neutral, or Evil. By now, everyone is familiar with what the choices mean, so I won’t belabor it. The point is that your character must fit one of these categories.

The problems come when you try to actually stay true to your alignment. Some of the alignments are very restrictive, while others give characters a lot more leeway in their actions. For example, characters who are lawful good end up being practically saintly. They follow a moral code that requires them to condemn almost any act that is not completely altruistic or pure. This leads to attacking demons on sight in many cases, even if such an act is suicidal. It also means, at least in theory, that paladins should not even be in the same party as a thief. On the flipside, chaotic evil characters are downright nasty, and there’s no reason why a party of adventurers should ever allow one to accompany them. They do not follow any rules, and they are very likely to kill you and take your stuff at the first opportunity.

The very middle between these two extremes is also restrictive. The true neutral (neutral/neutral) alignment, often embodied by annoying druid characters, must seek total balance in the world between good and evil. Many players take this to mean that they must join whichever side is losing in a conflict (or outnumbered, or declining in the world, or…you get the idea!).

In practice, this leads a lot of people to select the more open-ended alignments, such as Neutral Good or Chaotic Good. These two alignments allow you to be a good person, but one largely free to interpret this however you see fit. You are willing to break the rules for the greater good, but you might follow them too. Many of my characters followed one of these two alignments, and frankly I rarely thought about alignment in those cases. I just did what I felt like doing at the time (as noted in a previous post, I tend to play good guys by default), and ignored the alignment system.

Thieves, on the other hand, might play Chaotic Neutral, which is basically the selfish alignment. Such a character will steal or kill, but not for no reason at all. They do it because they benefit from it. As a player, this alignment allows you to do bad things from time to time (morally speaking), but also allows you to cooperate with the group, for Hobbesian reasons. Thomas Hobbes writes that we are basically all egoist, but that our egoism gives us good reason for cooperating with others and forming a society. We all benefit from cooperation, and thus it’s in our own best interest to avoid murdering and stealing from people that could do the same to us.

Of course, Lawful Neutral also fits this somewhat, since this is the alignment of people who follow the rules for their own sake, and not because of the good it creates. While some people argue that this is the best choice, since it allows one to be lawful without being a zealot about it, I think it’s a completely empty alignment. This is the alignment of people who follow the rules simply because they never bother to question them. Such characters strike me as intellectually lazy, and that’s not particularly praiseworthy.

Lawful Evil and Neutral Evil characters have their own oddities. Lawful Evil represents something like the corrupt fascist, who uses law for evil means. I guess Hitler falls into this category; so if you want to play as Hitler, this is the one for you! Lucifer (the devil) would also fit, since apparently devils have to uphold their agreements, even if they twist them to evil purposes. Neutral Evil characters are out for themselves in a way similar to Chaotic Neutral, but they are a bit more bent on evil. Maybe serial killers follow this, assuming they are crafty and not just psychotic killing machines (chaotic evil). I honestly don’t think about the Evil alignments that much, because I don’t like playing that kind of character. I just don’t see why a party would ever allow any of these alignments to join them in an adventure.

However, I still haven’t really explained why I think the system is broken. The reason is simple- none of these alignments seem very realistic. People are complex moral beings. They rarely fit into easy categories like this. Hitler may have been Lawful Evil as a politician, but I bet he skipped school as a kid. And I hear that he liked puppies. Truly evil people, who do nothing but evil, are pretty rare in the real world. The concept of pure evil might make sense in a game about a fantasy world filled with monsters, but offering them as choices to player characters means that they will be caricatures at best.

Perhaps this is the general problem with D&D, and other class-based, alignment-structured systems. While some people are able to transcend the system and create truly interesting characters, the system itself does not encourage it. It encourages you to play a very two dimensional role. There is a reason why D&D has so many video games modeled after it. Part of it is popularity, of course, but part of it is that the system already feels like a tabletop version of a video game (I’m aware that D&D predates video games of the sort I’m talking about here). Sometimes, when playing D&D and similar games, I feel like I’m playing an MMORPG that requires me to pick an alignment in order to decide which magic items I’m allowed to use.

The concept of alignment is meant to encourage roleplaying, but ultimately stands in tension to good roleplaying. Still, other attempts to capture the idea of values and moral standards might fare better in this regard. So in future posts, I will explore some of these other attempts, including Palladium’s approach and even Lucas’s Light Side/Dark Side approach.

Adults Don’t Like Genocide–Who Knew?


About a year ago, I decided to introduce my girlfriend to the world of tabletop roleplaying games. I considered trying Vampire: The Masquerade, which can include a lot of roleplaying and storytelling. However, since she was nervous about the roleplaying part, I decided a D&D dungeon crawl might be a better transition, since she likes Diablo3 and board games. I would use the Keep on the Borderlands (B2-the module that came with the original Red Box, basic system).

So far, so good! She learned that the keep was on the edge of the wilderness. She listened to rumors in the tavern that spoke of monsters in the nearby mountains. A merchant described how he had been waylaid by vicious kobolds that had destroyed his wagon. He barely escaped with his life! Another unfortunate traveler agreed that the roads had become more perilous. Someone must do something! The captain of the guard even offered a reward if the party would help out in these dire times.

She made her way into the nearby hills on the edge of the mountains and quickly found a cave entrance to explore. Once inside, she was attacked by kobolds. As you know, kobolds are pretty much the easiest monsters in the system. I described them as small and goblin-like, with dog-like heads. She fought threw them and found herself in a store room, where another kobold had fled the earlier battle. She asked if she could capture it and talk to it, which seemed like a good plan. The kobold told her that the rest of the tribe were nearby and described their numbers.

This is when everything fell apart. She looked at me and asked sincerely “Why am I doing this? Isn’t this their home? It doesn’t seem right.” I should have expected a question like this; as DM, I’m supposed to be prepared for any contingency. But I wasn’t. “Ermm…what do you mean?” I asked. “Well, this is where they keep their food, right?” I nodded. “And this guy I captured lives here, right.” Again, a nod. “So, basically, the others I’m planning to kill are his family, and I just broke into their home and started murdering them.”

Hmmmm…I suppose so. But, wait!

I told her kobolds are evil and reminded her that they had been destroying caravans. She gave me a look that indicated that this was a totally insufficient response. Was I really suggesting that just because some kobolds had committed heinous crimes, we were now free to exterminate them on sight? Would we even do this to known criminals? Break down their doors and murder them and their family?

“Of course not!” I stammered. “But these are chaotic evil!”

“What does that mean?” she asked, clearly confused that I thought combining the words ‘chaotic’ and ‘evil’ somehow explained away genocide.

“Basically, it means you can kill them on sight because they would kill you. It’s like Diablo!” At this point, even I wasn’t really sure why she should be doing this, though.

She thought for a second. “So, they are demons? They want to destroy the world? Is that how all the monsters in this game are? Isn’t one of my characters chaotic….ummm…neutral it says here.”

“Yeah, your thief. It basically means selfish.”

She furrowed her brow a bit at this. “So, chaotic means you aren’t very good? And neutral means what?”

“No,” I answered. “Not exactly. Chaotic means you don’t have to obey laws. It’s the opposite of Lawful. The neutral part means your character is neither good nor evil, but in the middle.”

My attempt to use the alignment system, which we all know is broken (and will be the subject of a future article, once I’m ready to discuss something so over-discussed!), to fix the problem wasn’t working, and I knew it.

“I just don’t see what the point of the game is,” she finally replied. “Do I just kill monsters and take all their stuff? Why do I do that? I’m supposed to be playing characters here, right? It’s not like video games, where just killing things is the point, right? I mean, we could be playing Diablo.” She looked at me in a way that suggested playing Diablo would be a great idea right now!

She had a point. Roleplaying games shouldn’t just be murder simulators. They may have started out that way, and I’m sure many (including myself) basically played them that way when we first started gaming. I was only 8 years old, and the idea of killing monsters just sounded fun! I would stare at the pictures in the books for hours, imagining the worlds beyond the tiny windows of insight I’d been given. But my girlfriend is a grown woman. If she’s supposed to be playing characters, she wanted them to be people, not just stats on a piece of paper. One of them was even a paladin, she reminded me. Why would paladins do this?

I conceded that they probably wouldn’t, at least not without some real justification. And that was the end of the session. She was done, and I couldn’t really blame her.

We haven’t played a roleplaying game since that day, though I’m still optimistic about trying Vampire at some point. And I’ll definitely be careful about motivating her character!

Sometimes those of us who started gaming when we were young forget that a lot of what we enjoy is tinged with nostalgia. When I was eight, the world seemed pretty straightforward. There were good guys and bad guys. My characters were good, and monsters were bad. I didn’t know what words like genocide meant, much less consider that condemning a whole race for the actions of a few was very wrong.

Psychologist Jean Piaget suggested that our moral development occurs in stages. In this view, at 8 years old, I was incapable of reasoning abstractly; everything was concrete and absolute. Lawrence Kohlberg extends this idea by adding notions of an expanding worldview, which starts from a very solipsistic perspective but eventually becomes more universal and empathetic towards others. Carol Gilligan adds that women may experience this development differently from men (whether this is biological or social or some combination is still debated).

In any case, as adults, when we are trying to introduce others to our hobby, we need to remember that straightforward notions of good and evil are for children. Don’t forget to motivate the characters with nuanced ethical situations that require more than just killing everything you encounter.

Ethics and Paladins- Part 3 (Existentialist Paladin)

knight of faith

While my previous posts deal with ways that we could expand on the traditional approach to paladins by looking at a variety of ethical theories, I want to take that idea a bit further by introducing the Existentialist Paladin, the ultimate Knight of Faith!

Existentialism is more of a loose movement of philosophical concepts than a cohesive theory. Put simply, existentialism, as Jean Paul Sartre explains, is the idea that “Existence precedes Essence”. What that means is that there is no essential nature to human life and our values that we must discover in order to know our true purpose. There is no such universal, absolute purpose. We exist first, and then we are free to create our purpose. While this sounds like unrestricted liberty, it’s not that simple. According to Sartre, truly realizing our existential state leads to despair and forlornness. The complete freedom we gain comes at a price-we have no innate direction. We must do the hard work of creating a life of meaning for ourselves in a universe that does not care about us. Many people are crushed by the weight of this Existential Angst.

Those familiar with Existentialism probably realize that most writers that fit into the view are atheists. Sartre sees the lack of God as a key part of the forlornness felt when we must create the world for ourselves. However, there are religious Existentialists, even Christians, and this is where we could get a template for the Existentialist Paladin.

One of the earliest Existentialists (some might call him a proto-Existentialist) is Soren Kierkegaard. Besides having one of the coolest names in history, Kierkegaard is known for his practically Post-Modern take on the idea of God. Instead of seeing God as the Infinite Realization of Actuality (i.e. as being the essence of everything), Kierkegaard saw God as Infinite Possibility. What does this mean, exactly?

Traditionally, religious philosophers, such as Augustine or Descartes, described God as Infinite Perfection. Everything that exists is part of God and thus part of perfection. There is nothing else. God cannot change, because there is nothing outside of God to change into. God cannot grow for the same reasons. God does not become; he was, is, and always will be. Time and space are meaningless to such a God. Defying God is like defying reality; it is unnatural. Similarly, any desire that things be other than how they are is not only pointless, but immoral and sinful, as it goes against God’s perfect plan.

This approach to God fits the traditional approach to paladins, of course. Defying God’s perfect will is immoral and must be punished. But now let’s look at God as Infinite Possibility. Kierkegaard writes about three types of people. The first are the ‘frogs in life’s swamp’. Most people fit into this category, flailing about in life, pursuing finite pleasures and making do with their lot as best they can. When they pray to God, they ask for things, but they rarely get them because their prayers are very selfish. Imagine if such a person lived in medieval times, Kierkegaard imagines, and he decides that he loves a princess. As a peasant himself, he cannot have the princess, so he makes do with the daughter of a butcher, who is a peasant like himself.

The second level is what Kierkegaard calls the Knight of Infinite Resignation. This is basically a Kantian deontologist, which I explained in the previous post on paladins. It’s also how most paladins are played. The Knight of Infinite Resignation aims at universal values, where all human life is sacred, and moral laws apply to all equally and must never be broken. If such a Knight were to fall in love with the princess, Kierkegaard argues, he would never renounce his love in favor of another, because that would be a lie. Instead, he would recognize that the princess can only marry someone of equal nobility, which the Knight lacks. He will thus infinitely resign himself to never getting the princess. This does not make him any happier; in fact, his is a life of misery. But it is a moral life, lived in full truth and self-awareness. We can relate to the Knight as a tragic figure, understanding that his aesthetic choices are based on universal truths. That’s our basic paladin-he might annoy those of us in his party, but we understand his views, and he is extremely, irritatingly, consistent.

The third level is where we find the Existential Paladin, or what Kierkegaard calls the Knight of Faith. Remember that the faith here is faith in a God of Infinite Possibility. The Knight of Faith, according to Kierkegaard’s explanation also falls in love with the princess. Unlike the Frogs in the Swamp, this knight does NOT give up his love for her; however, he also acknowledges that realizing this love is impossible, just like the Knight of Infinite Resignation. Here’s the important move. Through his faith and the “Strength of the Absurd”, the Knight of Faith actually changes the world so that he can marry the princess. This isn’t delusion or even some recognition that the rules were just a social construct. The Knight of Faith is capable of achieving the impossible through God.

Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham and Isaac to illustrate what he means. In this Biblical tale, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In the traditional view of God as unchanging and perfect, this effectively means that Isaac will die. Abraham has no reason to believe that Isaac will not die. If he does, then the story is less interesting to Kierkegaard. Abraham must know, with certainty, that Isaac is now doomed. However, at the same time, his faith in God’s promise that Isaac would be the fulfilment of God’s covenant means that somehow, impossibly, Isaac will live. Both these things must be true to Abraham, which means that he must embrace the absurd. Isaac cannot both die and remain alive, and yet Abraham’s faith must believe this anyway in order for him to be a Knight of Faith. He does, and God spares Isaac at the last moment by offering an alternate sacrifice. This story is usually seen as a simple test of faith, but Kierkegaard takes it much further by seeing it as the ultimate sign that God can do the impossible.

I think this fits with the idea of paladins very well, at first glance. They are able to use healing spells, and if powerful enough, the magic of the gods in D&D can even bring back the dead. Paladins absolutely do the impossible. Of course, so do wizards and sorcerers and clerics, and even bards…. Still, in this case the paladin would be freed up from the traditional role of following a god’s orders and instead be partners with her god. She could engage in her faith in a uniquely existentialist way.

Consider how another Christian Existentialist, Paul Tillich, explains faith as ‘ultimate concern’: “[T]he ecstatic character of faith does not exclude its rational character although it is not identical with it, and it includes nonrational strivings without being identical with them. ‘Ecstasy’ means ‘standing outside of oneself’ – without ceasing to be oneself – with all the elements which are united in the personal center.” The Existentialist Paladin transcends both the rational and irrational, the moral and the immoral, and becomes a law unto herself. Her faith lifts her above the rest of us, making her impossible to understand, though in her own mind, she never loses her faith, which allows an “affirmation of meaning within meaninglessness”. This is not relativism; it does not mean anything goes. Instead, such a paladin forges a path for others to follow, based on her own existential will and a god that enables her to achieve it.

The Existentialist Paladin would be incredibly fun to play because the other characters would no longer find her predictable at all. At the same time, she is not chaotic. She is lawful, but she is the creator of law, and can transcend any law through the Strength of the Absurd, not by ignoring law, but by overcoming it through faith. It would take a special player character to roleplay this properly and resist the urge to abuse it. It would also require an exceptional DM to recognize what is happening and react accordingly. Still, I’d like to try to play such a character at some point.

Ethics and Paladins- Part 2 (Divine Command Theory)

asian paladin

In a previous post, I suggested that paladins in D&D might be more interesting to play if we allowed them to follow more realistic ethical theories, such as utilitarianism or virtue ethics. Today, I want to take that point further by looking at the approach that most people take when playing a paladin and taking it in another direction.

The view is called Divine Command Theory, and it’s an approach to morality that basically says that we should do whatever God or gods demand. Following the Ten Commandments could be seen as Divine Command Theory; if the commandment says “Do Not Steal” then you must not steal. The reasons people might follow such a commandment vary, of course. Some might be trying to avoid punishment, while others want the reward of being favored. Still others may do it simply because God commands it, and they serve God. Most likely, Divine Command Theory is basically what D&D creators like Gygax or Arneson had in mind with the paladin originally. Paladins must follow the divine will of the gods, and there are real consequences if they don’t, such as loss of favor and the powers that come with it!

But what if we pushed this view a bit, in light of the fact that there are many gods recognized in D&D? I still have the original Deities and Demigods book, which includes stats on gods from Moorcock’s Elric novels, and even Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. If paladins are knights in the service of gods, why couldn’t they follow any of the gods, rather than being limited to a lawful good ethos? Imagine if my paladin worshipped Azathoth, which the book explains as a being the size of a star, and a god who drives followers insane? Now, I am an insane paladin, capable of doing whatever random things my capricious nature leads me to do at a given moment. In this case, I would become a Fallen Paladin if my character started to make act rationally, since I am no longer following the path of chaos and madness.

That’s an extreme example, and might actually be difficult to play for more than one, rather humorous, session. But my point is that there are many gods available, each with different goals and thus different Commandments that their paladins would have to follow. Later editions of D&D tried to capture this a bit by having evil paladins, or by giving clerics different domains based on the gods they followed. What I am suggesting would simply apply the same principle to paladins, and the player and DM would have to decide what Divine Commandments the paladin must follow.

Looking at some of the other gods in Deities and Demigods (D&D…get it?), we have a wide range of possibilities. There are gods from the Chinese and Indian Mythos, for example. Apparently, the world of ‘Oerth’ (names in the 70s weren’t so clever!) had the same religions our history has. In any case, a paladin following one of these deities could presumably be a Taoist or Buddhist, focusing more on harmony and balance than ‘good’ in the European sense. This might make her more like a druid, focusing on neutrality and the forces of yin and yang.

There are also plenty of non-human gods in the book, despite the fact that early editions did not allow non-humans to play paladins. They would still have gods, though, and surely some of them would become holy warriors. Baldur’s Gate 2 explored this idea with the character of Mazzy, who was technically a fighter, but had paladin-like abilities from her god, Arvoreen (the Halfling god of war…wait, there’s a Halfling god of war??). Following the commandments of non-human gods could lead to interesting ideas. Perhaps Dwarven gods have a very different sense of right and wrong than human gods would. Something about beards and mining and prohibitions against dwarf throwing.

The book also details Native American mythological figures, but interestingly none of the Central American gods are Lawful Good, and only one of the “American Indian” gods is. The heroes in these sections sometimes are, which I guess means that Hiawatha, who is listed as being a paladin, follows the Thunder Spirit, Heng, the only Lawful Good god on the continent! But if we loosen the restrictions on paladins, we could imagine jaguar paladins, who embrace the idea of being stealthy and cunning in the service of their gods.

Whatever the case, Divine Command Theory would actually allow a much broader variety than we typically assume, since most of us come from a Judeo-Christian background. Still, it wouldn’t allow as many possibilities as the next approach to ethics that I will examine- The Existentialist Paladin!

Fallout Dilemmas Part 2-Silver Shroud

Fallout 4_20151114171057In a previous post, I discussed my dilemma with Pickman, an NPC that led me to wonder what choice to make regarding his existence. Today, I want to look into another dilemma the game created for my character that is trying to be roughly moral. Spoilers ahead! Again, I shall avoid main plot spoilers, but this one is a series of quests. While I won’t give everything away, I can’t really discuss it without spoilers.

Shortly after entering the ghoul-run town of Good Neighbor, one of its denizens asked me to reclaim some props from an attempt to televise an old radio program called “The Silver Shroud”. The Shroud seems to be based on a very old radio character from the real world (i.e. our world, which is not necessarily more real than Fallout, but that’s another topic!) called The Shadow. I used to listen to audiotapes of The Shadow on trips with my grandparents, who apparently grew up listening to the show. I can still hear the echoes of its main tagline: “The Shadow Knows!”

Anyway, the Silver Shroud is a pulp hero more than a superhero. Think of characters like the Phantom or Dick Tracy; he’s a vigilante with a silver submachine gun and trench coat with a scarf (maybe it’s an ascot!) and a hat. He fights villains like the Mechanists, whom you may remember from Fallout Vegas. It’s really terrible stuff, but perfectly captures how these old serials tended to work.

Once you bring back the costume props, the ghoul that idolizes the Shroud asks you to don the costume and bring justice back to the Wasteland…you know, give people hope that there are heroes out there. So what should I do? Do I lie and pretend to be a superhero? Or do I say no?

Honestly, I had to see this quest play out, so I didn’t care what the moral choice was. But here’s how I justified it for my character after the fact!

First, there’s no way that anyone but the crazy guy who hired me would believe in the Shroud. The bad guys I took out were certainly unconvinced by my horrible imitation of the Shroud. Seriously, though, you must do this quest and you must speak as the Shroud. It’s hilarious. But I don’t feel like I’m lying to these people by pretending to be the Shroud. I feel like I’m cosplaying.

Second, these are bad people I’m taking out. I get to find out the bad things they’ve done first, which means they deserve to be murdered in the streets by a fake hero…right???

Third, maybe knowing that a vigilante is out there taking down the bad guys is enough to give some people hope. I mean they might not believe in the shroud, but surely they believe that less bad guys in the world is a good thing.

Fourth, aww, who am I kidding? I did it all for the lulz.

Ethics and Paladins- Part 1

typicalpaladinAh, paladins, the quintessential do-gooders—people with such moral fiber that they are incapable of bending principles, no matter the situation. This is the character that exasperates the rest of the party by refusing to do what is obviously necessary in order to achieve some end. In many ways, the paladin is a caricature of a moral person, one who views the world in such stark black and white terms that other players spend half of their time thinking of ways to trick the paladin into ignoring what they plan to do next.

In ethics terms, paladins fit into a moral theory known as deontology (from the Greek ‘deontos’ or duty). This theory presents the world in absolutist terms, where every wrong act is always wrong, regardless of context, and nothing immoral should ever be done, “though the heavens should fall”. That quote is often misattributed to the most famous deontologist, Immanuel Kant. The phrase is actually a Latin saying that applies to justice, but Kant approved of the idea behind it and argued that morality should be based on innate, logical principle rather than a desire to achieve certain results. The details of this principle are a bit complicated for a blog post, but the key is that once our duties are determined, we are morally obligated to follow them in all cases, without exception.

This principled viewpoint certainly fits how most players approach the paladin class. A paladin has an unbreakable code, which means, for example, that lying is wrong, regardless of the reasons or the target of the deceit. Other beings are either good or evil, and the evil ones must be destroyed, even if they have information that might be useful to the party. Want to rough up a recalcitrant NPC in order to determine your next move? Forget it! The paladin won’t let you.

The result is a system in which deontological baggage basically dictates your character’s actions. I’ve seen many players become disillusioned with their first attempt at a paladin as they quickly realized that they have almost no free will with the character. Key decisions became exercises in algorithmically inputting information to get a predestined result. Many lesser DMs actually use the paladin’s principles as a way of railroading players, thus adding to the frustration. In fact, most editions of D&D punish paladins for any act that doesn’t perfectly fit what the system thinks paladins are supposed to do. A fallen paladin, bereft of his or her connection to the gods, becomes pretty useless, since they lack the full benefits of a straight fighter and lose all of the spell-like abilities they once possessed.

So, how can this be fixed? One way would be to drop the deontological requirements of the class, while keeping the idea that paladins have to be lawful good. Instead of deontology, the paladin might follow utilitarianism, which focuses on the results of our actions rather than the actions themselves. An act itself is neither absolutely right nor absolutely wrong. It depends on whether it creates more pleasure than pain when compared to other acts we might do.

I think playing a paladin as a utilitarian could be a lot of fun! Imagine if your character takes the Law of Utility to be the law that she follows (satisfying the ‘lawful’ part), and sees the greater good in long terms. Such a paladin might be willing to torture a defenseless goblin in order to foil a greater evil, especially since the normal flaws in torture (i.e. the victim’s willingness to say anything to end the pain) would be mitigated by the spell-like ability to discern truth from fiction. The possibilities here could be very interesting!

More importantly, this would eliminate some of the frustration that other players feel when there is a paladin in the group. For once, a group member could turn to the paladin and say “Look, we know that stealing is wrong, but it’s the only way to get the potion that will save the kingdom!” and the paladin would agree. Even the restriction on being in the same party as evil characters could be lifted, since the paladin might recognize that as long as the party is doing good, overall, it’s OK if that’s not the main goal of every one of its members.

This isn’t the only approach to ethics that could change how paladins are played. What if our paladin follows virtue ethics, a view that focuses more on character traits than principles? After all, paladins are supposed to be full of virtues, like bravery, honesty, integrity, and compassion.

Aristotle, the most famous virtue ethicist, proposes that we should aim at the Golden Mean when developing character traits. The basic idea is that every character trait has a deficiency, where too little is shown, an excess, where too much is displayed, and a middle ground, where we exhibit just the right amount. To help students remember this, I often refer to it as the Goldilocks and the Three Bears approach to ethics, where there is always too much, too little, and just right!

So how does this fit with paladins? Well, the bravery they display would have to be tempered rather than extreme. They have to be able to fight the forces of evil, but a single paladin charging into a legion of demons is not brave; he’s a fool. The same is true of compassion; too much makes you soft. Too much integrity is actually stubbornness, where one refuses to change position even when there is overwhelming evidence that the original position is wrong. A good DM should allow a player to play as an Aristotelian rather than a virtue robot programmed to always recite the truth, charge into evil, and accept every quest.

Paladins, as presented in most D&D campaigns, are too excessive to be virtuous. The advantage of virtue ethics is supposed to be its flexibility. An honest person does not have to tell the truth in every single instance; if that were true, none of us would qualify as honest. Ironically, as presented in the rules, paladins are too extreme to qualify as virtuous. They do not bend enough. (Am I the only one picturing a Stretch Armstrong paladin right now?).

These are just a few ideas on how you could spice up the role of paladins while still insisting that they follow a code of ethics. But we could take this a lot further! In my next post, I’ll explore two other ethics positions that could really change how paladins are played. The first seems at first glance to fit the idea of paladins perfectly. It’s called Divine Command Theory and is just what it sounds like; however, in a world where there are many gods, DCT could lead to all sorts of possibilities! I’ll also examine what I think would be an amazing alternate approach to take: The Existentialist Paladin.

Fallout 4 Dilemmas Part 1- Pickman

PickmanpaintingTime for some applied ethics in actual games. This is part 1 of an ongoing series about Fallout 4. There will be spoilers in these posts. I will try to avoid spoilers that focus on the main plot of the game by focusing on choices made in side quests as well as one-off events that happen in the game. Because Fallout 4 has a huge, open world with lots to explore, you may never encounter some of these situations in your playthrough. However, they are in the game, so you have been warned.

I start with a choice made by my heroic character, Dannis. I’ve decided that Dannis does care about finding his son (this is the main plot, but you discover this in the tutorial), but he is unwilling to sacrifice the good of others to do so. As a result, he helps people when they need it, whether they are settlers trying to fend off Raiders or victims of ransom demands from Supermutants who have kidnapped their loved ones. Dannis is a good guy, and this should make his moral choices pretty easy, right? Not exactly!

(This is where the real spoilers begin!) In one recent episode, Dannis happened upon an art gallery. As soon as he went in the door (hiding, naturally!), he overheard a group of Raiders talking about a man named Pickman. The Raiders were plotting revenge on this guy for messing with their gang. Sounds like my kind of guy! The Raiders are ruthless terrorists in the wasteland, and Dannis tends to shoot them on sight (before he gets shot himself). This was no exception, so he decided to put an end to their revenge fantasies by lobbing a frag grenade into their midst. Three raiders died instantly, but there were more around the corner.

After eliminating the resistance, Dannis checked out the building a bit. In a large room on the main floor there were grotesque paintings on the wall. They looked like they were painted with blood, and they depicted hellish scenes of torture and Cthulhu-like images of eyes on tentacles. Really gruesome stuff! In the middle of the room was what can only be described as a monument to death and dismemberment. Limbs and torsos and heads were arranged in sickening postures, a sadistic sculpture dedicated to madness and destruction. Whoever made this engaged in perverse fantasies. These Raiders had gone too far!

There were also some corpses on gurneys nearby. They contained the usual Raider loot—a few bullets, some bottlecaps, and various junk—but they also had calling cards from this ‘Pickman’ character. Apparently, he was killing these Raiders and letting them know it was him. Well, good for Pickman! These guys were even more disgusting than other Raiders I had seen.

As I explored upstairs, I realized that there was a space in the wall, which led down into the basement. Down there was another piece of “art”, this time with a bucket of blood and some entrails next to it. Ok, this was messed up! However, it was starting to dawn on me that this isn’t typical Raider behavior. Yes, they impale some of their victims, but largely as a warning or to strike terror. Someone was taking perverse pleasure in this, and that isn’t really their style. A blasted out section of wall led into some caverns/sewer beneath the building, where Raiders were taunting Pickman that this time had come. It was time to pay for his sick deeds. Uh oh. This confirmed it. Pickman was the bad guy here. I mean he was the worse guy…or something.

I finally found the climactic battle. The leader of this group of Raiders was fighting with Pickman. I wasn’t sure whom to help at this point, so I lobbed another grenade. Maybe it would take them all out! No such luck. A few Raider minions were killed, but the two big baddies were still fighting with each other. I decided to shoot the closest one, which happened to be the Raider. From my elevated vantage, I was able to end the fight fairly easily. Unfortunately, Pickman was still alive. I decided to find out his motives and go from there. This was where I made a mistake of sorts, morally speaking. If, at that moment, I had treated Pickman as a threat, I could have eliminated him and felt no real guilt. He was a bad guy; the Raiders are bad guys. Save the Wasteland by ridding the world of both.

That’s Fallout justice!

Instead, I listened, as he explained that the Raiders deserve what he’s doing to them. His art produced good in the world, even if it did satisfy his twisted ends. I froze, literally in game terms. I paused the game and thought through my options. What should I do? On the one hand, this guy was a psychopath; on the other, he directed his tendencies toward Raiders, and the less of them the better. He was an apocalyptic Dexter, using his deviant desires to rid the world of other evil people. Did the ends justify the means here? I wasn’t sure, and I teach this stuff for a living! What’s my duty here? What would maximize utility? What would Aristotle do?

Damnit…I just wasn’t sure.

Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t just murder Pickman now that he had stood down. In game terms, he was green (non-hostile). I told him I would let him live. He gave me a key to a safe he had hidden behind one of his viscera paintings. In it was some treasure, including the switchblade he used on his victims, which gave a bonus by making enemies bleed after being stabbed. I sold it, because gross.

As I left his gallery (yeah, that’s what the building is called in the game: Pickman’s Gallery), I pondered my decision. I couldn’t get over the feeling that I should have killed him. Sure, he’s ridding the wasteland of Raiders, but he’s also a sociopathic dick who delights in dicing up his victims and turning them into art. Should I have left someone like that alive? Does anyone, even a Raider, deserve to have that happen to them? I don’t think so, but I also wasn’t sure I could just murder him in cold blood.

Here I am, traveling through the Wasteland, acting as judge, jury, and executioner over and over again, and this one time I have a perfect chance to end someone awful, I don’t take it. What do you think? Did I make the right choice here? Or did I blow it?

Playing Bad

fallout badguy

In my previous post on empathy and RPGs, I mentioned that I like to play different types of characters in games in order to try out different roles, and even different value systems. Right now I’m playing Fallout 4 (more on that game next post!), and I have three characters. One is basically a dumb brute named…Brutus (yeah, it’s not very original! If I get a chance to name pets in a game, they get names like Doggy, Piggy, or Eagly). He does whatever he is told and hits people with his fists and hammers and such. The two other characters are more interesting to me. One is a typical hero, out to save the world. The other is an egoist. She’s not evil, but she’s definitely selfish. She’s somewhere between Ayn Rand and Thomas Hobbes. She’ll help you, but she wants to know what she’ll get out of it. Then she’ll ask for more.

The problem is that while I find the egoist character interesting, I also have a hard time staying in character with her. I want to help out the people of the wasteland, and they are so desperate and poor that asking them for more money seems heartless. I do it because the character would do it, but I find her choice distasteful.

I was discussing this problem on Facebook, where my brother noted that he has the same problem. He can play a rogue character and steal things, but he still won’t sacrifice groups of people for his own ends. Another friend is playing through Knights of the Old Republic 1 (not to be confused with the newer MMORPG!). He’s trying to play the Dark Side, a choice that the game allows you to make. That game is brutal, though. To be “dark” leads you to do some pretty evil things. I’ve tried it, and I increasingly disliked my character. I didn’t even finish the Dark Side of that game. It was too troubling.

What does this mean? I think it reflects the empathy issues discussed in my previous post (here). A correlation between roleplaying and empathy could go in either direction. Perhaps roleplaying games teach us to be more empathetic toward others, or perhaps empathetic people are more drawn to the way roleplaying games allow us to visit another person’s life (fictional though it may be!). But some of us carry our empathy with us. We might enjoy seeing what a game has to offer in the way of moral choices, but that doesn’t make it easier to intentionally do something bad.

Of course, it’s just a game! We aren’t really sacrificing innocent people for our own ends. But I think there are some connections. In an article called “Monstrous Thoughts and the Moral Identity Thesis” Stephanie Patridge argues that the way that we think about even fictional characters in books, movies, and video games tells us something about our moral identities. Building on work by Berys Gaut, Patridge suggests that our intentionality toward fictional characters and situations can be evaluated morally, thus telling us something about our own ethics.

Presumably, this is only true if you actually identify with the fictional situation in some way, enough to actually have intentionality. So, if you are playing a bullet-hell SHMUP (shoot-em up!) in order to get a high score, you aren’t likely identifying with your onscreen avatar at all, much less with the hordes of ships/aliens/carebears/whatever that you are destroying. However, in a more immersive game like Fallout, many of us do immerse ourselves in the game in some way. The character we are playing has a story and motives, and so do the various NPCs we meet. As a result, how we act in the game and how we feel about our actions could tell us something about ourselves morally.

What do you think? Do our actions in games tell us anything about ourselves, morally? Does it depend on the game and the actions? Am I just overly sentimental when I worry about the poor settlers in the Fallout Wasteland, who carry all their possessions on a two-headed cow….I mean, Brahmin?